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Milosevic Prosecution Closes Arguments this Week

Prosecutors at the International War Crimes Tribunal will wrap up their case against Slobodan Milosevic in the next few days. The former Serb leader plans a defense strategy that could extend the trial until 2006.

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No longer the face of Serbia, Milosevic has been in a Dutch cell for more than two years.

On most days, Slobodan Milosevic enters the court room in his customary blue suit. With the light disinterested gaze of a 61-year-old man with nothing left to lose, he peers back and forth between witnesses testifying on the stand.

For the past two years, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia has stood in the dock of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Milosevic, whose case has been modified several times, is charged with 60 war crimes including genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and crimes against
humanity in Croatia and Kosovo. He is accused in the killings of tens of thousands and the displacement of thousands of people from their homes in the last decade during wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia. If convicted, he could face a life sentence.

Carla del Ponte Chefanklägerin des UN-Tribunals, Völkermord in Bosnien

U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte.

Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte (photo) and her team are expected to wrap up their case against the ex-dictator in the next week. The closing arguments will mark the end of the first part of the trial. Milosevic, who has chosen to defend himself, and the two attorneys and legal aide helping him can then prepare a defense strategy and a list of witnesses.

But first, Milosevic has the option of requesting an audit of the prosecution's case. The three-judge panel then can shoot down arguments and charges for which there is insufficient evidence.

Prosecutor's tough case

The process could be damaging for del Ponte, who has already been criticized for being too headstrong and not allowing the judges to make their mark on the case.

The shakiest part is believed to be the genocide charge, a weakness even del Ponte has conceded. No one has been able to prove in court that Milosevic himself ordered the slaughter of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. Philipp Morillon, the former United Nations commander in Bosnia, who has testified about the massacre, has even partially defended Milosevic, saying he had headed off the first possible attack on Srebrenica’s Muslims.

The war crimes charges stemming from Croatia and Bosnia could also prove problematic. The prosecution has built the charges on the premise that Milosevic was operating a “criminal organization” with the goal of building a “Great Serbia” that stretched into parts of Croatia and Bosnia. But legal expert Sluiter says prosecutors have failed to turn up written evidence. Del Ponte has also had trouble finding cooperative witnesses to prove the case against Milosevic.

Should be enough for long prison term

International law expert Gören Sluiter warns not to place too much blame on del Ponte herself. Sluiter said the judges have also made mistakes by failing to set time limits for prosecutors.

Slobodan Milosevic vor dem Internationalen Gerichtshof in Den Haag

Slobodan Milosevic enters the courtroom.

"They have done that to a certain degree ... but giving the prosecutors two years to present the case is extremely long and does not force the prosecutor to be more selective," Sluiter told DW-WORLD.

The prosecution team has managed to present some very effective witnesses, like former NATO Generals Wesley Clark and Klaus Naumann, who have provided would could be deeply incriminating evidence against Milosevic. The generals' testimony could be especially useful in regard to the crimes against humanity charges in Kosovo, Sluiter said.

Testimony combined with information out of police and army archives in Belgrade should be enough to convict the former Serb leader and put him behind bars for a long time.

Trial could last until 2006

But first Milosevic will have the opportunity to defend himself against these charges. Legal observers expect his defense to take as much time and include as many witnesses as del Ponte’s prosecution. After a first ruling in the case, an appeals process is anticipated, with no final decision
expected before the end of 2006.

Whether Milosevic is convicted or not, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia will continue to play an important role in the truth and reconciliation process of the Balkans, according to Sluiter.

“One should also not exaggerate the importance of the Milosevic trial. It comes at a time when the Tribunal has already been functioning for a number of years and over those years they have dealt with all of these incidents," he said. "So I think as to the effects of the case and the responsibilities, I think the groundwork has already been done and even without the Milosevic trial the is of significant importance for the history of the Balkans.”

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